Feature Hostage Negotiation

The best way to win this game is not to play, which means positioning the product based on vision and strategy. If you haven’t done that, then you’re going to find yourself reviewing spreadsheets of features with stakeholders and having no leverage in that conversation.

Have you or your team ever felt like prioritizing your work is like a hostage negotiation with your stakeholders…and you don’t have the leverage to get a good outcome? In this episode, Richard chats with Dean Peters about what he calls “feature hostage negotiation.” They dig into where it comes from, what problems it causes, and how to respond if you’re a product manager in that situation.

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Dean’s full article on Feature Hostage Negotiation

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Episode Transcription

Richard Lawrence

Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show. For this episode, I’m joined by product management consultant Dean Peters. Dean and I crossed paths several years ago when he was a Product Manager at one of my clients. And we’ve stayed loosely connected over the years. The other day, in the context of a discussion on Twitter about Product Manager burnout, Dean used a phrase that caught my attention.

So I invited him to come on the show to have a conversation about it. Welcome to The Humanizing Work Show, Dean.

Dean Peters

Hey, thanks for inviting me, Richard. Glad to get a chance to talk face to face again.


Yeah, I’m excited about it, too. So the phrase that caught my attention was “feature hostage negotiation.” Now I think I know what that means. I think I’ve seen it before, and it’s certainly evocative of frustration and burnout. But to start off, Dean, why don’t you give us an example that illustrates what you mean when you use that phrase?


Sure. So in its simplest term, it’s just navigating this corporate jungle of stakeholders. And it could be stakeholders, engineers, or even customers who are basically insisting that their pet features get built. So you could have an example of one of your larger clients who is maybe a significant part of your income, who is like, “Well, you know, our contract is up for renewal, but we’re not getting these features.”

Or you might have a stakeholder. “Well, you know, we’re coming up on the business planning session here and you’re asking for some of my budget, but I’m not seeing my features.” So you get in these conversations where, you know, people have some leverage to get the features they want, whether they’re on part of your vision and your product outcome and, you know, it creates some interesting situations.


What do you think the underlying cause is for getting into that kind of system?


Yeah, I think part of this — and I see this especially with more –and I think what we call more tactical product people as opposed to strategic product people, as we called it a 280 group. And I think over there at, you know, with Humanizing Work, I think you have the term visionary product owner and what do they call it—facilitating product owner?




Yeah. So I think a lot of it– first of all, we see a lot more of that in the facilitating product owner or like I said, the tactical product owner where they’re almost like that, you know, what would you call that, a short order cook mode? You imagine someone working, you know, a cook working at maybe the Waffle House, for those of you on the Southeast, where they’re just taking orders and they’re just firing in tickets into the team. Okay. And they’re just slinging hash on the features here. Some of this has to do with maturity of their facilitating or the lack thereof of that facilitating product owner. Some of it has to do with their position.

I think the best way to win this game is not to play, which means how are you positioning your product? How are you positioning the product vision and strategy? And if you haven’t done that, then you are likely going to find yourself with spreadsheets of features and these customers or these stakeholders who have some leverage trying to use that leverage to get what they feel needs to be done next.


So it sounds like the thing that makes this actually a problem is that you’ve got a product owner or a product manager that actually has a vision or something they’re held responsible for achieving, which is a little bit different than the facilitating product owner, where you’re really a neutral facilitator, just managing supply and demand.


I agree with that mostly. I do think the facilitating product owner runs into this where, you know, since they are prioritizing demand, that prioritization is heavily influenced by some who may be using their leverage to say, “I see you have five engineers, they should all be working on my stuff.”


Hm. And I guess if it works, how is that not an expression of value in the priority?


Well, okay. So I think part of this is that it could be what they’re asking for isn’t actually the most valuable. So in other words, we assume there’s value. In other words, well, they’re not going to pay us unless they do this here. Well, let’s walk this back. So first of all, let’s understand some of the telltale signs first that you might be in that– whether you’re, you know, a strategic or visionary or whether you’re on the tactical side there or the functional, I mean, you get this sudden demand.

So it shows up. You get a little bit of that, you know, emotional, I’ll call it leverage—blackmail’s too ugly of a word—it often comes in with– without a lot of data, if any. Yeah. It could also indicate that the communications are just going one way, that you’re not really being the product owner. You’re not really being the product manager; all you’re being is an order taker here.

So I think that’s the first thing we need to realize here. So as these come in, what can we do regardless of what our stance is, you know, whether it is visionary or whether it is functional. And that, okay, these ideas came in. I’m not going to stop this charging hippo here. What I probably need to do is sit there and what William Ury talks about is take it out to the balcony or stand next to the person saying, “Appreciate the idea. I understand the idea. Why don’t we first validate the idea?”

So where I see a lot of failure happening is where teams aren’t in that validation stance. They have no– For example, a lot of these teams aren’t practicing things like dual track agile or continuous discovery or they’re not instrumented with analytics; the things they measure on their dashboards and radiate, if they do that at all, are all about WIP or all about velocity and none of them are like, “All right, have we run a Sean Ellis poll with our users here, which is, “Would you be really upset if we took this feature away?” or “Would you be really happy if we took it away?” or we haven’t done anything– were capturing analytics on where do we see a lot of the motion here?” I’ve had situations and I’ve seen situations where they (someone with a lot of leverage) comes and says, “We need this feature fixed here.” They could be, because they’re the only ones using it, of a thousand people.

So how do you reframe that conversation from saying “We could work on this, but you’re the only one using this,” right?


You have to know that, right?


Yeah, well, how do you not? Yeah. So how do you position yourself to have that conversation. Right. So if you’re not collecting information, if you’re not in a stance of validation experimentation here, you’re not going to be in a strong– Where’s your leverage? All right? So if you don’t have any of that data, if you don’t have any of that customer feedback, it’s really hard to sit there and say, “Well, our product roadmap says we’re going to be doing X.” How much does your team cost?

Well, you know, for example, if I if we’re looking, you know, I think you’re– on a recent podcast a few months ago– you’re talking about yeah, I think you did this sort of a figure of about $1,000 a day per person on team. I think it was…


Yeah, that’s my back of the napkin.


Yeah, I think 2017 I published a blog article. Same thing.  It was funny. I hadn’t compared our notes. I was like, “Look, they’re coming up with pretty much the same number.” So, you know, so at the end of two weeks or the end of four weeks, are we going to be able to sit there and say, you know, am I in a position where I can tell this, this charging, you know, this you want to call the rhino; the Really High Value New Opportunity– where you got the really high value new opportunity person in marketing or sales and say, “Hey, let’s slow down a minute here. I’m about to put in about 70,000 over the next two weeks.”

What can I tell my management in terms of where we’ll see that that return on investment? Are we going to see, you know, 700,000 over the course of the next year? How much do you feel like this is going to bring us back in value? But a lot of product people don’t put themselves in a position to have those conversations, to sit there and say, we can work on this, but that means these other things you need or we want aren’t going to get worked on.

So I think some of this is, again, not getting so much into that flow of just delivering up stories or even just they say they’re visionary, but they’re still failing to go ahead and collect this data that they’re not in a position to have any leverage back in these negotiations.


You need something stronger than just a competing opinion.


Competing opinion or here’s what the roadmap that we all said we agree to here. Or, if you’re trying to manage up you need to speak languages, speak. All right? Are you doing tiny acts of discovery, you know, regularly on some of these? Can you at least take what they’re bringing in, and instead of saying no, saying “Let’s validate it first, let’s see how far to take it.” It could be that you say “Yes,” but your yes is very limited. In other words, it’s like, okay, we’re going to do this narrow vertical slice. Let’s split this thing down here. And just like we’re going to deliver this narrow vertical slice, instrument it and then see what the feedback is.

And then we’ll see if we want to build it bigger, see if it’s, you know, it’s actually worth as much as we think it is. So again, it’s positioning ourselves for success in those conversations with data, with best practices in terms of experimentation and learning, with understanding the languages they speak and being able to speak their version of Esperanto or “exec-speranto” or whatever that is.


Can you– do you have a concrete story that comes to mind of somebody making this transition from being stuck in the state to getting out of it?


So yeah, as I tell people, I’m a recovering engineer, so one of my first product jobs, I wound up becoming a director of product after only a short while and had to build a group, and it was a growth stage startup. And so we had a couple of very, very large clients who made up a very large percent of our income, and they would come in with spreadsheets of features saying this is what we want you to build.

And I had to figure out, “All right, if I just tell them, ‘no,’ it’s not going to work. If I tell them, ‘not yet’ it’s not going to work.” So I actually took a combination. First of all, I grabbed some data, found that those features that were being barely used and, I was saying, like, “I would like to deprioritized these.

“At this point, we don’t see a lot of use on your side.” Of course, they would argue, “Well, that’s not being used because it’s not doing it the way we want to,” which is fair. But saying, “Look, let’s focus on these– first of all, these items here where we feel there’s a lot of pain, a lot of impact for both sides.

Let’s go ahead and figure out which of these larger rocks that you want to move—“What are you trying to get done as an organization?” All right? Are you trying to you know, are you trying to make us some plays in your operational model in which, you know, in this case they were trying to do; they had three key things they would do the operational model thing.

Let’s just focus on one of these first. Let’s just focus on this element. So part of it is also knowing their business a bit, knowing the domain, having that conversation here, and then again, just negotiating in terms of “Well, we’re not going to be able to sit there and do this and stay viable as a company. So basically, let’s figure out what we’re going to do over the next quarter for this big rock you have that we feel also has value for us.”

So rather than take this– and I think it was like 70 items on that spreadsheet, we got it down to about I think it was 12 items that we focused on for the quarter. And of that, I think that at least half those items did have value for our other customers in our environment as well.

I mean direct value. The other ones were good but these had direct lift on that. So I feel like at the end they understood how to work with us and we understood how to work with them a bit. But it took a while, it took a few mistakes, but it was a good lesson for me that customers with leverage– and then when I went other places, we found the same thing.

I would find it either with somebody internally, politically connected, maybe with the budget or maybe with where they were at the position, who was going to do the same thing. And that’s where I learned like, well, we’re going to have to sit there– you know, I don’t think their idea has legs, but if I just tell them it’s a stupid idea…

Yeah. Now, fortunately I had already been beating the drum on collecting analytics, so I had that. What I didn’t have—what we didn’t have was a good motion with experimentation. And that’s around the time when I said, “Well, I think then both myself and as a team, we need to figure out how to be better experimenters, how to field these tiny acts of discovery, get rapid feedback without interrupting our sprints, staying on target with our product outcomes here, and how do we do this, you know, in these narrow vertical slices so we can get rapid feedback and tell them that the baby is ugly.”


So when you come back with that bad news, how does that change the relationship in the future?


Well, for example, that first example I gave you, I actually think it strengthened our relationship. We learned how to communicate with each other. They learned I taught them a little bit about us and some of our costs. For example, I said like, “Look, what you’re asking for is going to cost us around a hundred grand to implement here. It’s just “We can’t do that and stay viable for you. You’ll have to go find a new vendor,” you know, I mean, it was almost exactly those words. So they, you know, they understood our dynamics a little bit better here. I think on the political side there, when we invalidate their idea, they escalated it. We knew they’d escalate it– and then we had to be ready to present there.

We eventually had to do something, you know, a smaller version of it, but we did get it at least scaled down. All right. Part of it’s also understanding what hills you want to die on. All right? So, I mean, some of these times there’s things you have to do to keep the lights on and you just have to be able to recognize that.


Yeah. And I’ve experienced sometimes the thing you’re keeping on is the relationship. So I’ve, I’ve had sacrificial features in the past where, “We’re going to build this because it’s valuable to this person and this person is valuable to us even if we don’t think this particular feature is. So we’re going to make it as thin as possible so that we can keep the person happy and keep the product light.


Exactly. So those are some things to keep in mind there.


Well, good. Thanks for talking through that with us, Dean, if you’re listening, I’m curious how you’ve experienced what Dean calls, this feature hostage negotiation and how you’ve handled it, what has worked and what hasn’t. So weigh in in the comments on YouTube or social media and we’d love to hear from you. Thanks for tuning in.


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